August 8, 2010

What Was I Thinking?

(Author’s note: This column was actually written last year while I was teaching, but I never got around to running it. Now with all the hubbub in the news about Facebook’s tendency to play fast and loose with personal information, it seems appropriate.)


Not too long ago, a twenty-one year-old man from New Jersey was arrested for posting a video on his MySpace or Facebook page in which he boasted about being a pederast.

            Now, there are several possible reactions to this among the general public, I guess. Disgust, anger, confoundment. My own response was something along the lines of “What a fucking moron.” I learned early that if you’re thinking of doing something illegal—thievery, vandalism, assault, torching a building, or in this idiot’s case, molesting children—you simply do not go around advertising the fact—especially online—unless you want to get nabbed. Time and time again these days youngsters go and post videos of their little crime sprees online and whaddya know? Boom, they get busted and people make fun of them for being that stupid.

If you don’t want to get caught, just keep your big fat mouth shut until the statute of limitations has expired. Then you can blab all you want.

            It’s a lesson a lot of our wee folk don’t seem to have picked up quite yet. And in many cases, it’s already too late. They don’t seem to realize or accept the fact that everything they put up on that ol’ internet is there forever. Nothing is secret anymore, and it won’t be for the rest of your life. So fourteen year olds are posting nude pictures of themselves and disgruntled students are announcing online that they plan to shoot up the school. They don’t stop to think that one necessary and simple step ahead—namely, that these things are going to be found, they’re going to be distributed, and they’re going to end up in the wrong hands (parents, school officials, child molesters, cops, or—funnier still—future would-be employers).

            I’ve gone on about all this too much in the past. But this last week I was reminded once again how the next generation has been completely blinded by inescapable technology. They’ve become so drugged by it, been left so oblivious and self-absorbed, that they don’t even understand the most basic operating principles of what they hold in their hands.

            It was foolishness on my part I guess to expect that students nowadays would actually read the Unabomber Manifesto and an essay by Thomas Pynchon at all, let alone both in the same week. Long before I stepped foot in the classroom, teachers from my school, from other schools, teachers who dealt with all age groups warned me that the students simply will not read. Anything.

            But you know, my students surprised me. They had done the readings I’d given them. At least for the first couple of weeks. And when they hadn’t, they told me they hadn’t. It was a good set-up, I thought, and I (perhaps again out of foolishness) had actually gone to great lengths to make things as cheap, easy and convenient as possible for them.

            That’s why it was such a disappointment to realize within seconds after starting my (undeniably scintillating) lecture that no one had bothered that week. Nevertheless I charged ahead. I told them about Mr. Pynchon, whose 1984 New York Times essay “Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?” was not only brilliant, but a lot of fun, too. Then I told them about the Unabomber (my favorite Evil Genius of all time) and what sort of wacky shenanigans he’d been up to.

            The overarching question was about technology’s role in the modern world, and whether it’s really done us that many favors. Both Mr. Pynchon and Ted Kaczynski came from scientific backgrounds, but express what you might call a healthy skepticism about who’s controlling what when it comes to our relationship with machines. I was thinking (again foolishly) that in this tech-nutty world—this world in which “life” takes place on a three-by-five inch screen and nowhere else—that something like the Unabomber Manifesto might get them to think about things a little more deeply.

            But when I posed the simplest of questions directly—“does what Ted Kaczynski wrote make any sense at all to you?”—I was confronted for the first time with those dead cow eyes I so feared. Which I guess gave me my answer. Yet still my foolishness rolled on and I kept prodding. And the responses I eventually got out of them were much more horrifying than anything I could’ve expected.

1. They seem to be fully aware that their iPods and Blackberries have an undeniable control over them, but they don’t seem to mind.

2. Reducing their lives to the minimal data that goes onto a Facebook page is a good thing, as it helps them “keep up with their friends.”

3. They would not want to follow Kaczynski’s example by abandoning everything and moving into the woods because “that wouldn’t work.”

            So in short, “life,” as the Situationists said, really had become nothing but a spectacle—something to be observed through a screen instead of something directly experienced.

            I hate to be the cranky old man on the corner (well okay, no I don’t), but back when I was their age I woke up everyday with nothing—no money, no plans—and I went out and created my own reality as the day went on. I may have done some terrible things, but come the end of the day I had no regrets. I knew I’d done something, and I ended the day with a back pocket full of new experiences. I may have offered a few apologies along the way, but they were on the whole some mighty exciting days. And I hate to say it (no I don’t) but I do have to wonder what these kids will think when they look back on their twenties. Will they regret the fact that they spent all that time playing with pixels and staring at a screen instead of, say, doing something?


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